Technology is not all it is cracked up to be

I have always thought that we have a rather low-tech vehicle, when compared to most modern ones. It is a Land Rover Defender 110: drives like a flying brick but in this part of the world indispensable. Our first Defender was third hand and somewhat spartan. This one was bought new but although an updated model, it is, nonetheless, instantly recognisable as a British classic.

It may leak, is certainly noisy and is remarkably uncomfortable if you have the misfortune to have to sit on the back seats on any journey more than 25 miles, but we love it. In the past four years we have covered over 75,000 miles in it. It has taken us birdwatching in north Norfolk, garden visiting across the South West and is our usual transport onto the Moor. As well as being the school run bus, it has ferried children and all their gear to and from universities (although I would not recommend the cross-London route we took last September taking one of the girls up to the University of East London). This morning it was a straightforward pre-Christmas shopping trip into Exeter. We dropped Ed off at school (drama rehearsal this morning and rugby this afternoon) before parking in the Southgate Hotel car park.

Returning an hour or so later, the central locking did not work. This is where we found the Land Rover somewhat higher tech than it might at first appear. When we bought it we were warned never to unlock the door manually once the alarm was set, as not only would this set off the alarm but trigger the immobiliser (requiring an expensive call out to reset it).With this in mind, we called a daughter, borrowed her car and drove home (collecting the shopping first) to fetch the spare keys. Back, much later, in the car park, I discovered the spare keys did not work either. I had no alternative but to make the ‘phone call for the expensive call out: 30 minutes later Lamb Garage (aka Land Rover Assistance) appeared.

He had no qualms about opening the door. The alarm didn’t go off, nor did the immobiliser trigger. He did not know what the matter was, but the engine started and I was able to drive home, cold, £135.00 the poorer, and none the wiser. The Land Rover will have to go back to the dealer on Monday, and once plugged in to their diagnostic equipment, we will probably learn that the whole alarm/central locking system has failed, and will have to be replaced. Life was certainly much simpler when you simply used a key to lock, unlock and start your car!

It left me wondering what we would have done had it happened last Sunday. We had driven up to Okehampton Camp and a little beyond, and then walked the military road before cutting off, up Oke Tor and back along the Belstone Ridge. Parking, we caught the first icy squall. Hailstones coming in almost horizontally at 40 miles an hour is not much fun, but in between bright sunshine, tremendous wind and good walking. We lunched sheltered behind Oke Tor (and watched another bout of dirty weather come over) and 45 minutes later had to take shelter again. We got back to the Landrover as yet another squall caught us. Had the central locking failed then, we would have been very stuck (and very cold!). But we had our mobiles with us and even if it had not been pleasant, no doubt someone would have come and helped us.

We rely so much on technology. I have been very tempted to buy a GPS for walking, especially as weather on the Moor, as we found last week, is so unpredictable. The problem is that once you start to rely on this equipment, you run the risk of losing the real skills that hill walking requires: map and compass work, the ability to estimate time, direction and distance; and, above all, common sense. It is like having satnav in the car, and ignoring the road signs: I once arrived at the back entrance (locked) of a hotel in Redruth, courtesy of satnav; a friend of ours didn’t pay attention when tapping in Moretonhampstead, and instead found herself on the road to Mortehoe: yet she knew the way perfectly well.

Machines are no substitute for sense.


Gloucestershire revisited

I have spent much of the past week travelling up to Bristol. We have been working on a deal for the past couple of months and, so far, have had four separate attempts to complete it. If I am frustrated, that is nothing to what my client is: but it is just one of those things. It has happened before, and I have no doubt it will happen again: transactional work is complex, and the devil as always is in the detail. It is not, however, all work: as with all transactions, there are long passages of time when nothing much is happening but when it is not possible to do any other work. At moments like these, I often find myself thinking of my life outside work, and of the things that really matter.

Sometime last Friday afternoon, while we waited for confirmation that the Irish lawyers were checking the documents (they weren’t), my client Alan and I sat and talked about the countryside. He has just moved back to his house deep in Gloucestershire, and was telling me that most mornings roe deer will come up on to his terrace; and of the little owls that patrol his garden.

I spent 12 years in the South Cotswolds, before moving further west and south. I loved that Gloucestershire countryside: the combes south of Wotton-under-Edge, the long scarp of the Cotswolds and the views across the Vale of the Severn towards the Bristol Channel and the Welsh hills beyond. For ten years I hunted across it, most often with the local beagles but occasionally with the Duke of Beaufort’s Foxhounds, and I reckon I got to know it well. Lower Woods on a dank day in early February is not much fun, even on a hireling named Ajax.

But even though it is a kinder countryside than Dartmoor and its in-country, where I now live, if I had to choose there would be no contest. I know it would be here: a bigger sky, the weather driving in from the South West and buzzards mewing over the high ground.

We were on Mardon Down again today: a cold and clear morning, with rain on the distant horizon. There are very few places where I feel more at home. When we came to live here in 1997, we knew little of the area: it was simply the only place where we could find a house that suited us and the children and which we could afford. Having decided to stay, I now feel that it is the place we have chosen.

I will be back on the M5 on Monday morning, with a scheduled meeting at 11.30. I hope that I won’t have time to talk to Alan about his roe deer: but if I do, then it won’t be wasted time, as I shall tell him about those I see most mornings as I drive to work.

A lot can happen in seven days

A lot can happen in seven days. We saw a house in late September, liked it and the following Sunday we went for a second time to look at it. Monday, we made an offer that was accepted, but with the caveat that we had to sell our present home. By midday Tuesday it was clear that the buyer we thought we had, was not going to be able to move in time to let us buy the house we had seen. Three days of worry followed, with our agent talking of dropping the price of our house, “to engender interest” (and I thought only lawyers used language like that!).

We walked on Mardon Down on Saturday morning, and as we walked we talked. And as we talked, we realised that there was another option: to stay where we are. It is a big house, and as the children grow and leave home, it can be quite empty. But with luck they will be back.

We talked of why we originally bought the house, of what we can and will do, of the changes that we will make and the decision was made. We looked out over Moretonhampstead, from the stone where Caroline scattered Foggy’s ashes on a cold January Sunday. It is a view of which I never weary, and we turned back to the Land Rover with the feeling of a great weight lifted. The children are delighted: after all, this is home to them and is where they have spent their teenage years.

It is now two weeks since we made the decision. Our builder has been round and we are starting to sketch out the timetable for the work that will need to be done. In the meantime, we have been deciding what furniture to keep, and what to let go. It is almost a new beginning in the house. When we arrived in Moretonhampstead nine years ago, we put our energy into the family. There was a lot we have had to do to the house over the years: wiring, a new roof (we kept a Cornish slate quarry busy), various bits of plumbing, a new boiler, new windows. What we have not really done, other than change the colour, is the interior. This is what we are now going to do over the next twelve months. Watch this space!

Autumn Gardening

It is raining hard, and has been for three hours. We managed a couple of hours after lunch in the garden: mowing the lawn and generally tidying up. When we moved here nine years ago, the garden was overgrown and ill-kempt. Our predecessors would be horrified to read this, and perhaps it is not entirely fair. When they had first arrived, they had done much; but as they had grown older, they lost control of the garden. It was one of the things that attracted us to the house: the opportunity to make our own garden.

We set about clearing it: all but one of the trees came out, and over time we reshaped beds, changed the levels and made a pond. The first autumn after we moved, we lost the one tree we had kept, a large mulberry. Caught in a storm, it split, with half blocking the road and the other half in the garden. We had no alternative but to have it dug out: the trunk was rotten and it was past saving. We planted another mulberry, although that was damaged in a storm two years ago, its crown split.

We are thinking of moving on. Four of the five children have left school; one is in Berlin; two at university and another will start next autumn: just the boy is left at home, and then for only two years. We don’t know exactly when we will move, or where: we have seen a couple of houses not that far away, and know that it is now not so much if but when we move. As I mowed the lawn I wondered if it would be the last time. I love the garden we have made. I can remember where we bought nearly all the plants, and when. Some have done really well; others have struggled. This summer has been so dry that at times we wondered whether we should simply have had a Mediterranean garden. I think that at least one if not two of the trees we have planted have been killed by the drought. The rain we are now having is probably too late, although the resilience of plants never ceases to surprise me.

Caroline spent the afternoon tending her streptocarpuses. They will come with us, as will the olive tree, the acers and the camelias. How we will move everything, I have no idea. I imagine that there are people who move plants, or perhaps it will be us in the Land Rover, with a trailer (so we had better not move too far!). Most of the plants we will leave, for whoever buys this house, in the hope that they will give them as much pleasure as they have given us.

October Blues

This year we have had one of the longest dry periods I can remember. Autumn came in mid-Summer, as the trees started to lose their leaves and the ground is iron-hard. Not much fun for a rugby playing 16 year old. Dry pitches may make for fast rugby in South Africa (or so we were always told when I was younger); over here, you simply get skinned knees and elbows, and tackling is an effort of will! Ed finds it very frustrating.

It has been all change this weekend, and we are now getting the rain (and wind). About time to, but we need a lot more. This afternoon we took ourselves up to the Hennock reservoirs: Tottiford, Kennick and Trenchford. Built between 1861 (Tottiford) and 1907 (Trenchford) to supply water to Newton Abbott and Torquay, the three reservoirs lie on the wooded ridge between the Teign and the Wray valleys. It is easy walking, and there are never that many people about. The woodlands are mainly forestry and there is little wildlife: buzzards and, over the reservoirs, shags. We have see roe deer on the edge of the forestry but little else.

Trenchford was built following an exceptionally dry period in 1901. I am not sure how 2006 has compared to 1901, but in our visits this year, and we go up most months, we have seen the water levels in all three reservoirs drop, and all are now the lowest we have seen in the ten or so years we have been here. Tottiford, the middle one, is empty at its upper end and there is little water the dam end; Trenchford must be 25 feet down from its high water mark.

We had intended to walk the Belstone – Cosdon – White Moor stone circle – Steeperton Tor – Belstone circuit today. We last walked it late last autumn, in fog and driving rain, and had hoped that we would have better weather today. The route gives tremendous views over the wilder parts of the Northern Moor. We have been walking the Southern parts of the Moor recently and both felt that we were due a change of scenery. We should have gone yesterday. Overnight the rain came in from the South West, and we woke to day that was definitely not a day for the High Moor, even in the right clothes. So shaking off the lethargy of a late start, we drove up to the reservoirs. It went on raining and, sitting writing this three hours later, my jeans are still damp. I was told to put on waterproof trousers but knew best!

Perhaps next week.

Down narrow lanes

Those of our friends who live in town find the journey out to us from Exeter, along the B 3212, interesting. Well, that is often the adjective used to describe 12 miles of narrow road, with few places to overtake safely and locals who are confident in their ability to get back on to their side of the road in time. It is certainly windy but is the most beautiful journey, at all times of year and in all weathers.

Leaving Longdown, you sweep right handed along the ridge and suddenly, there, in the far distance, is the Moor. On clear nights the lights of Drewsteignton and beyond Whiddon Down glitter on the horizon. Five miles further on is the boundary of the National Park, on the straight road by-passing Dunsford that for a short time runs parallel with the Teign. Dunsford village is on the slope above, and its churchwardens often fly the flag of St George from the battlemented church tower.

Across the Teign and then the steep, winding climb up from Steps Bridge through the woods to Doccombe. At this time of year the trees are bare and from the vantage point of the passenger seat of the Land Rover it is possible to look down the slope towards the river. There is a family group of roe deer that live in this part of the Teign valley, dark brown, almost black coats, and they are a common sight, especially in the half light of late afternoon or early morning, as they move along below the road. It doesn’t happen often, but when they cross the road, you get very little warning. They don’t always make it.

At Steps Bridge you can just see the start of the wild daffodils. Come late March and early April, weekend afternoons see the car park above the guest house full and cars parked back beyond the Baptist Chapel, with visitors stopping to look at the yellow carpet that runs down to the river. We go, but early in the morning, to miss the crowds. Better still, park at Clifford Bridge and walk through the fields and woods on the north side of the Teign, down to Steps Bridge.

From Doccombe the road climbs again to Cossick Cross and, dropping down towards Moretonhampstead, the Moor seems closer, filling the horizon. Cossick Cross is just on the 300 metre contour and this is one part of the journey that in winter, to use that adjective again, is interesting. Frost lasts all day and the road can be very slippery. 12 months ago, in one of those rare March snow flurries, I had to abandon my car below Cossick Farm and walk up to the top of the hill. No signal on my mobile ‘phone but the farmer drove me back down in his four-wheel drive pick up. Next morning you would not have known that it had snowed.

In winter the buses out from Exeter are single deckers, busy only at the start and finish of each day. In summer, they run a double decker across the Moor, through Moretonhampstead. A friend living opposite bought her house in the late autumn. When the timetable changed in spring the next year, I am not sure who was more surprised, our friend or the passengers on the top deck of the 82, as she threw open her bedroom curtains: they looked in and she looked out, the only difference being that they were fully clothed.

But back to the road: we are used to it. We know the passing places and we know where and when to expect drivers on our side. We also know where the potholes are (ice plays havoc with tarmac patches) and where there will be mud, or water, or deer or barn owls. It is different for visitors. This summer Caroline was in the Information Centre when a couple came in, quite shaken. They were from the United States, en route from Exeter to Marazion in Cornwall and had been persuaded (rightly) that the route across the Moor was not to be missed. He was all for taking the long way round, on the A30; she was braver (and not driving). She won and they left to keep going south. He was far from sure (and not reassured by Caroline’s remark that they had survived the worst bit of the journey!). They had taken just short of an hour to travel those 12 miles: and they hadn’t stopped to admire the view. I am glad I wasn’t stuck behind them.

Spring comes slow

We have had our snow, overnight on Friday but for a short time only. Saturday was a bright spring day and by evening most had gone. In Exeter they had had no snow at all and looking east the hills were clear. The south west was a different story and the Moor is still white.

We should have walked yesterday but the prospect of watching the rugby at home was too attractive. So I sat with the boy and we saw the English deservedly lose to the Scots at Murrayfield. It was not a good game; certainly, with hindsight, not one worth missing a clear sunny day on the High Moor for. Instead, we said we would go today, that the weather would hold. Well we went, and it hadn’t. It was cold leaving the house, with the odd drop of rain. It was clear by Okehampton but colder, the streets completely empty; and as we climbed up towards the camp, there was ice on the road and snow across the Moor.

We weren’t the only ones out. There were a number of minibuses parked up, a sure sign that Ten Tors training has begun in earnest. Three of ours have been through Ten Tors, two doing the 35 mile route and the youngest girl doing both 35 mile and 45 mile. Each year, throughout the early spring, we see groups of six teenagers, the team size, with their adult ‘sweeps’, training hard at weekends. The Ten Tors Challenge takes place over a weekend in May, when 400 teams hike between ten nominated tors, covering either 35, 45 or 55 miles between 7.00 a.m. on Saturday morning and 5.00 in the afternoon on Sunday. Each team carries all they need for the two days they are out, and each team member has an allotted task – navigator, team leader etc. There have been years when it has snowed, and years when the temperature has been in the 80s fahrenheit. The Army run it superbly and for those who take part, it is something that they will never forget.

It is much the same for the parents. We have waited for the start gun on three May Saturdays and willed the children on. Last year, with filthy weather – rain and mist, Celia was taken off the Moor late on the Saturday evening, virtually unable to walk because of her blisters, having covered close on 20 miles in the day. She was gutted that she wasn’t allowed to continue but she and another team member, with a badly sprained ankle, were slowing the team up. It doesn’t always go right. Two years before, they had been one of the first 35 mile teams home.

Today was not much fun, either for those training or for us. The Moor was white and the sky steel. We parked where we could, warned that the military road ahead was like glass. Even in a four-wheel drive the going was hard. Having parked the Land Rover, and setting out south towards East Mill Tor, we were passed by a couple of saloons, ignoring the warnings and all too soon having to reverse and slide back down the road. It was not a long walk. We met the Falmouth scouts making their way back towards their minibus. It was their second day out and even though they had not been under canvas they looked tired. Walking was difficult, the wind bitterly cold and even on the road, it was slippery. We each have two poles but it is unusual to see these used by teenagers out training: probably because poles are seen as very much a piece of kit for the middle aged! But we kept our feet; they were having more difficulty.

Coffee on East Mill Tor and we turned back, the road ahead impassable with drifting snow and going cross country too treacherous. The snow isn’t hard enough to support you and there is little point to wading knee deep in soft snow. The forecast is for the cold to continue in the first part of the week but next weekend may be better.